Please Speak English

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Joe Vento owns a Philadelphia restaurant specializing in Philadelphia cheesesteaks. He has come to national attention with a sign he displays that says “This is America, when ordering speak English.” Actually it uses some caps, which implies shouting, and suspect use of quotes as above.

Should he be able to display such a sign? Absolutely. A recent city ruling has agreed with this. Is he an asshat for doing so? Absolutely. An asshat is someone who proverbially has their head up their ass, thus wearing their ass like a hat. Please look at the following image for clarification:

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Let’s examine in context with the foundation of the United States and the arrival of European settlers. Columbus was an Italian sailing for the Spanish crown, but it wasn’t until Spaniard Ponce de Leon in 1513 before a European would land on what would later become mainland United States and then nearly a hundred years to 1607 before the first successful British ethnic and presumably English speaking settlements. The British colonies would go on to be the most prosperous economic and military settlements and thus wield great influence linguistically and culturally.

Perhaps the native Indians (who are named such because the Europeans thought they were in India looking for spices) should have erected signs in Wampanoag stating, “For help cultivating food so you don’t die, please speak Wampanoag.”

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That alludes to the issue of the languages spoke by the people already living on the North American continent. More than half of American states have borrowed their name from American Indian languages, not to mention city, river and lake names (actually I did just mention it).

Language is a continually evolving creature. The first pilgrims who set out in 1620 were among the first generation of people to use the s form of verbs, that is saying has instead of hath and so forth. Were the Pilgrims any earlier those older verb forms may have been preserved in American English.

Also, please look at this only slightly tangential graph. It appears I should be typing in German right now.

Anyway, where do we draw distinction between British English and American? Perhaps shops in England should warn customers who want to spend their money there to “please speak British English.” After all, America has introduced many words that never existed in Britain: teenager, telephone, striptease, hangover, blizzard, weekend, and gadget to name a few. Why do Americans spell it color and the English (the language is named after them) as colour? Don’t get me started on aluminum! In England the Royal Mail delivers the post and in America the Postal Service delivers the mail. That seems annoyingly contrary to me.

Even within America the English language differs greatly. I’m from the Mid-West of America. If I visited a cheesesteak restaurant in Pennsylvania I could be confronted with such menu items as, scrapple, subs, snits, and fat cakes- none of which are in my Iowa lexicon. Maybe a further sign is needed so I’m sure to “please speak East Coast American English.”

Perhaps I have misconstrued the intent of this sign. Afterall, a 1993 study found 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not “able to locate information in text”, could not “make low-level inferences using printed materials”, and were unable to “integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.” Our own president has publicly stated:

“Is our children learning?”

-George W. Bush

The answer: yes, they is. Bill Bryson points out a 1985 study by the Rand Coorporation that 95% of the children of Mexican immigrants can speak English and by the next generation over half claim English as their only language.

I have heard the claim by some that they do not want to ‘press 1 for English.’ While this does return at least several seconds that could be spent watching TV, does it encourage non-speakers to learn the language? I feel the result may in fact be disenfranchising sizable minority populations that could lead to their exploitation. Here in Japan, I greatly wish my local ATM’s operated in English because when it comes to money I don’t like pushing random buttons (I just know one button says ‘transfer all funds to the terrorists’).

Nonetheless, English is the language of business and most likely the clear leader as a world language. Around 330 million can claim to be a native speaker, though 750 million can make the same claim for Mandarin Chinese. And you just try to order a cheesesteak with Mandarin! Especially in China where I do not believe they sell cheesesteak sandwiches.

English is so important the the Japanese government is dropping huge wads of cash just to have ME come to the country and TEACH the goddamn stuff. What an experience that is! The Japanese reaaaally want to speak it too! There is even a separate alphabet, katakana, for words transcribed from foreign languages that is mostly English. Transcribed is used loosely here, as most words are well beaten to fit into the Japanese syllabicity. For example, my name, Tyler Bell, is spelled タイラ  ベル which in Roman characters (lets not go into that distinction) is Taira Beru which phonetically is something like Ty-ra Bay-ru, which, may I point out, is not my name.

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Further complicating matter is the fact that *gasp* I don’t speak Japanese! The horror! I rely on speaking Japanese like a 10 year old, dictionaries, friends, phrase books, hand gestures, smiling broadly and adding an -o to the end of every word I don’t so at least it sounds Japanese.

And I have seen signs requesting you to bugger off (that means f*ck off for you American readers) if you don’t speak Japanese (on the internet) and not to enter if you aren’t Japanese, probably largely to language barriers (in person). The distinction between these signs and Mr. Vento’s is they said it in Japanese, Korean, AND English. If if was not in English, why, I might blindly just walk into that place. Likewise if I did not speak English, how in the world could I read Mr. Vento’s sign when I got hungry for a cheesesteak? Whoah, dude (for British readers, that is a general term for a person), what a conundrum!

The other distinction is the sign I saw in Japan was in fact barring me from something based on my ethnicity. Mr. Vento’s is merely a suggestion to “please speak English” and he has never denied service because of this, though by his own admission you might receive Cheez Whiz (hey, that’s not the real English spelling… or real cheese) on bread if you don’t follow the suggestion. Therein lies the difference between asshat opinion and breaking the law.

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When I saw that sign, it made me feel less than a person (umm, not the Cheez Whiz one- that makes my mouth water); I wasn’t good enough to go in there based on facts entirely out of my control. Don’t get me wrong, this surely is one of the most mild of discriminatory practices ever committed in the world and I didn’t lose any sleep but it doesn’t make it right.

I doubt Mr. Vento and others of the similar opinion have been on the ‘other side of the sign’, so to speak. I would eagerly invite him to come visit me in Japan. I will take him to some amazing temples, beautiful mountains, and neon-clad streets and at the end of a long day I know just the bar to go to for a cold adult beverage to relax. Unfortunately we’d have to turn around and go home when we find the following sign:

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My apologies for not being scholarly rigorous. Much of the information not quoted here is from Bill Bryson’s entertaining book about the English language called Mother Tongue. I welcome all comments, including grammatical mistakes, which I’m sure exist.



9 Comments

  1. Paul wrote:

    Excellent article.
    To Mr. Vento: You are not famous – you are now infamous. I will eat across the street at Pat’s Steaks from now on.

  2. Oh my Tyler Bell. I reading your blogging internet every day now. So much interesting. I am sad these days because my internet of pichures are no longer working on website of internet. Meybe i no pay the money. Very difficult in understanding. Now on boat journey. On question about latest blog letter of the internet. How make you man put head up crack. I was very funny and my boat friends all laft with me many times a day. I hoping one day we meet in person to person man to man. on the day i will teaching you many stories of me living.

  3. tbell wrote:

    Bolteesh, thanks for reading. I hope you find some entertainment in the site! Where are you from?

  4. Taylor Marie wrote:

    I enjoyed reading this, and I agree with you.
    Thank you!

  5. Jose wrote:

    As a immigrant from Mexico and someone who has seen the limiting impact of people who live and work in the U.S. and don’t speak English I think we should encourage and if necessary DEMAND that people speak English. I’ve achieved a high quality of life in this wonderful country because I learned to speak, read, and write English fluently.

  6. Leon wrote:

    You kind of missed the point. I agree that he’s an asshat, but that’s no reason to force him to teach his employees another language just for the sake of a few customers that don’t speak English.

  7. Scott wrote:

    Very interesting article. The language census map is especially interesting in that German looks to be the dominant language. My family is Pennsylvania Dutch, and spoke Dutch (very close to German) up until my Grandparents. I should probably be speaking it, but I speak English, and that is the real point of English. It is the middle ground that a country with many different tongues could come together. It seems that effect is now world wide, and why shouldn’t it be so. English is like a vocabulary sponge, absorbing the best words from every language it meets.

  8. Mr Fnortner wrote:

    Understand that Mr. Vento is afraid. His reaction is not unusual in that people are more wedded to their language than they are patriotic, and with great intensity. (Conquered peoples have changed their political loyalties never having given up their language.) His language concern is a surrogate for his feelings of loss of America. He can’t get his country back, but he can–by God–make a stand for his language. The fact that his effort is pathetic makes him tragic, not comical.

  9. Sweetums wrote:

    Intolerance will not be tolerated!

    For Christ’s sake people, lighten up.